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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

BPL Book Discussion: Remarkable Creatures

Last Monday (7/28) the book discussion group met (one week late due to my vacation) to discuss Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier.

Here is the summary from the publisher:
A voyage of discoveries, a meeting of two remarkable women, and extraordinary time and place from bestselling author Tracy Chevalier. 
From the moment she's struck by lightening as a baby, it is clear that Mary Anning is marked for greatness. On the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast, she learns that she has "the eye"-and finds what no one else can see. When Mary uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious fathers on edge, the townspeople to vicious gossip, and the scientific world alight. In an arena dominated by men, however, Mary is barred from the academic community; as a young woman with unusual interests she is suspected of sinful behavior. Nature is a threat, throwing bitter, cold storms and landslips at her. And when she falls in love, it is with an impossible man.
Luckily, Mary finds an unlikely champion in prickly Elizabeth Philpot, a recent exile from London, who also loves scouring the beaches. Their relationship strikes a delicate balance between fierce loyalty, mutual appreciation, and barely suppressed envy. Ultimately, in the struggle to be recognized in the wider world, Mary and Elizabeth discover that friendship is their greatest ally.
Remarkable Creatures is a stunning novel of how one woman's gift transcends class and social prejudice to lead to some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century. Above all, is it a revealing portrait of the intricate and resilient nature of female friendship.
We purposely picked this book to go with out summer reading science theme.  Also, one of the ladies in our book group donated one of the summer reading grand prizes-- a family membership to the Field Museum.  So, this novel really was a no-brainer pick. Luckily, the choice panned out as there is A LOT to discuss here. In fact, overall if you are looking for a book that is hard to dislike, is a quick read, and still worthy of a good discussion, Remarkable Creatures is a solid choice.

On to said discussion:

  • We began with 10 liked, 6 so-sos, and 0 dislikes.
  • Liked Comments:
    • It was a fast read but I still learned something
    • I was so anxious to find out what would happen between the two women.  Would they make up?
    • It was a comfortable read
    • One participant shared how she is a docent at the Field Museum where she works with the fossils.  I am not a scientist, she said, but I loved how the novel gave me a sense of the history of natural science.
    • I like the Jane Austen-eqsue details and how the characters were aware that their lives were like an Austen novel at times. 
    • I really enjoyed this from the perspective of how what we learn about science changes what we think about God.  Then, many were scared by the idea that God “made mistakes.” I have been a religious educator for 25 years and now I see the idea of the cosmos challenging views of God now.  So, interesting.
    • I like how all of our “likes” reasons are wide ranging.  That shows how interesting this book is, even though on the surface it feels “light."
  • So-So Comments:
    • I was annoyed by the monotony of their lives as women in the early 1800s.  Also their relationship as friends annoyed me. So what that one was poor and one was well off. Just be friends.
    • I didn’t know much about fossils before this.  I was a little confused at how they actually determined something was a rock or a fossil.  I liked learning about it, but need more information.
    • There were lots of little gems of words or phrases.
    • As I read it, I didn’t realize Mary and Elizabeth were real people.  When I found this out at the end (Author’s Note) I liked the book a lot more.
    • I admired Mary; she was smart if not educated.
  • Let’s discuss the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth; how would you define it?:
    • I found it enlightening how much class differences mattered. It was a huge impediment to friendship between women.  I never knew that.
    • evolving-- like sisters at times
    • Elizabeth was the mentor to Mary at first but then over time, Mary became a mentor to Elizabeth.
    • I liked how their relationship changed over time
    • It was very mother/daughter like too. Elizabeth is very protective of Mary and her discoveries, but she is also a bit overprotective of her too.
    • They became colleagues-- both on a path to knowledge.
    • They are both searchers.
    • It ends with their friendship which was nice because it was their friendship which was at the heart of the story.
    • Which woman needed the other more changed over time, but Elizabeth is always there when Mary needed her.
    • They end together on the beach, but also alone searching for fossils. They are there if the other needs them but are happy to go along lost in their own world.
    • Both apologize to each other. This is hard.
  • Class Issues?:
    • At some point each used their class strengths to help the other.  Elizabeth shared her connection with the higher and educated classes with Mary while Mary shared how to get down and dirty in the mud to find fossils with Elizabeth.
    • Mary never would have known what happened to her fossils without Elizabeth.
    • I liked how the women took the class restrictions and used them to their advantage. The divisions helped both of them.
  • Woman Issues?
    • It was terrible to be a woman at this time.  I think being a widow was your best option.  You had the most freedom that way.
    • The women and their relationship are the “remarkable creatures” as much as the fossils.
    • Molly Anning transcended the gender issues, but she could never marry because of it. She was a woman with an inquiring mind that allowed her to rise about what was expected and allowed.
    • It was amazing these women, despite the huge constraints, still has a huge effect on history, one that is still important today!
    • What if either woman had married?  We would never know about them now and the history of natural science would be much different.
  • Speaking of Marriage...Colonel Birch and the Love Triangle
    • Chevalier admits to adding the love story here.  There is no evidence that Mary loved him, no evidence they had a relationship beyond colleagues, and no evidence Elizabeth was jealous.
    • As a group, we were torn on Birch and Elizabeth’s reaction to him.  Did she love him herself? Some said yes.  Was she jealous of the fact that he took away Mary’s attention?Others agreed here.
    • So why is this story even there? It is Chevalier’s reaction to the historical record that Birch donated all the money from his auction of fossils to Mary Anning.  Why else would he do that? Lacking an answer, the novelist used her imagination.
    • Elizabeth falling a bit for Birch herself made her more feminine and a more believable and sympathetic character.
    • This love triangle storyline also lightened the story a bit.  Novel is a bit too serious and dry without it.
  • When I opened up the conversation to any other characters, Buckland came up right away.
    • He symbolizes the church and science issues. He is a church man who loves natural science too.
    • He made me think about the era and its contradictions
    • I found it bizarre to read this book and try to imagine a world where we don’t know that the earth was around for billions of years before people came along.
    • It was a scary time.  People were learning more about the natural world, but did not understand it fully.
    • Chevalier did a fantastic job of putting us the the middle of the start of  a time of huge and rapid scientific discovery.
    • What was so neat is that it makes sense that Mary, a girl brought up by cliffs and watching the tides, would understand that the earth is constantly in flux.
  • Fanny: She was a well placed character who exemplified lots of views of people in society at time.
  • Elizabeth’s sister-in-law in London: I think she was jealous of the freedom the sisters had living unmarried in Lyme.
  • Bessy is still lost to history
  • Johnny, Elizabeth’s nephew kept her legacy alive for the world and history.  He was like a puppy dog, loyal to her and their shared secrets.  As a child, he could break the rules of gender more easily.
  • Words that describe this book:
    • enlightening
    • alternating povs
    • female friendship
    • history of science
    • forgotten history
    • Austen-esque
    • faith challenging
    • science and religion
    • social contraints

Readalikes: First of all, if this book interests you and you want to know more about the real life people, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, Chevalier has an excellent bibliography in the back of the novel. Click here for more links from Chevalier.

There is a Dickensian feels to this story and the life of Mary Anning in particular.  So try Great Expectations.

There are also more than a few references to Jane Austen here. So readers may want to read something by her.

NoveList has these two books with fossils hunters from a similar place and era (but with different writing styles):  The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles and Pictures From an Expedition by Diane Smith

 If you want more historical fiction with a focus on women and their friendships try books by Lisa See, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, .  For historical fiction focused around an unlikely friendship but with men, I would suggest Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon.  And for historical fiction that just feels similar to me, try Geraldine Brooks or Brookland by Emily Barton

But interestingly, the book this most reminded me of of a title, also about an unlikely British scientist from a similar era, but in this case, it was a nonfiction book, Between Man and Beast by Monte Reel which I read and reviewed here.

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